On the outside, the lights shine brighter than I remember as a kid, but inside the old man is dying. That’s what Mom says anyway, that’s what she tells me while we drive the boys around town so they can see Christmas lights. She’s Grandma to them, and she doesn’t say anything about the man dying loud enough for them to hear.
“He has cancer. The bad kind,” she whispers.
I nod, wondering just what the good kind of cancer is.
She continues. “A nurse comes in twice a week, that’s what Mary Ann says anyway. Really bad shape.”
“How’d he do the lights?”
“The town helped out—some volunteers at the church. Downtown businesses. It’ll be too bad when he’s gone, an end to an era. Do you remember when we used to drive by here.”
My hands tighten on the wheel. “Sure.”
The boys are still gawking at the house, their bundled little faces pale and slack as they drink in all the twinkles, the thousands of tiny sparkles. Out, out brief candle, I think, but the candles won’t go out. The town won’t let them go out. I step on the gas and pull away from house, a little disgusted with myself, a little disgusted with us all.
At the Phillips 66 station three blocks down from the house, I turn onto the highway and head home. In the review mirror, I see the boys yawn. They’re up past bedtime, and tomorrow is Christmas. Mom looks at me, and I can tell she’s frowning a little from the droop at the corners of her mouth. Probably a response to my scowl. I try to relax, but all I can think about is the old man rotting inside his house.
Liz meets us at the door. “How was everything?”
I shrug. “The boys need to get to bed. Tomorrow’s Christmas.”
She backs away a little, probably sensing one of my moods. Before helping Nick and Nate into their pajamas, we lay out three sugar cookies—the flaky kind Mom makes with red sprinkles—and set them on the table with a glass of milk. “For Santa,” Liz tells the boys.
We tuck them in upstairs, and I crash in the living room, flipping through TV stations trying to find A Christmas Carol. I only like the version with Alastair Sim. In every advertisement, the houses are decorated with little lights. I can’t escape the thoughts of the old man. Mom and Liz are talking while I surf; I can hear a little of their mumbles.
“What’s eating him?” Liz asks.
“I don’t know…we drove by all the places he liked as a kid.”
I smash the power button on the remote, and march into the kitchen.
“I’m going to bed,” I announce.
On the way to my old bedroom, I pause outside the boys’ room and peek in. They’re tucked neatly under fat comforters, sleeping peacefully with visions of Santa and the gifts to come in the morning. Nothing is out of order for them, only me.
I’ve been lying in bed for thirty minutes, staring at the ceiling, before Liz comes upstairs. She undresses, folds over the blankets, and slips inside. She’s trying to be quiet, probably sure I’m asleep.
“I’m not asleep,” I say.
A pause. “Oh, sorry.”
Another pause. I feel the air in the room thicken.
“What’s wrong, Bub?”
“Nothing.” I close my eyes and wait a few moments. Maybe sleep will come. Maybe not. “We drove by a few houses I remember from when I was a kid.”
“Yeah. This one house, well Mom said the owner was dying. Cancer. He’s in bad shape.”
“That’s too bad.”
I suck in a lungful of stale air. “The town won’t let him die.”
“They put up lights on the house.”
“Who did? I don’t understand.”
No, Liz, you don’t understand. You never will. She’s from Chicago and doesn’t appreciate traditions in a small town. “The town did it. They won’t let him die in peace. He’s in that house, dying, alone, and the town won’t let him go. He should be in a nursing home or a hospice. Someplace else.”
“Maybe he wants to die in his own house.” She touches my arm under the blanket. I pull away.
“I’m sorry. Goodnight,” she whispers. Within minutes, I hear her breathing slow to a steady rate.
The boys are asleep, dreaming of Santa on the roof, but I can’t sleep thinking of how many times I’ve driven past that house. I don’t even know the old guy’s name. I’m a leech—the whole town is full of leeches—sucking pleasure from his Christmas display for thirty years, and now he’s rotting from the inside and no one seems to care about anything but the lights.
I climb out of bed and slip downstairs as quietly as possible. In the kitchen, I eat one of the cookies. The red sprinkles look like splatters of blood in the dim light. I swallow the milk in three big gulps. The boys will think Santa did it.
In the garage, I rummage through Mom’s tools, looking for something to do the job.
I leave the house through the back door and drive away without headlights so they won’t see the glare and wake. A fragment of moon hangs limply in the midnight sky; I glance at it, half expecting to see a sleigh pass across its yellow face.
At the Phillips 66 station, I turn and drive three blocks. The lights are still on, even at midnight. I look closer at the house this time and notice peeling paint. The house is rotting outside just like the man is dying on the inside. Volunteers put up the lights, but can’t paint the place? All people care about are those goddamn traditions—shitty town. They don’t care about his pain, suffering. He’s dying for Christ’s sake.
I pull around to the alley, sure that the loud Christmas music pumped on an endless loop will cover the sound of the back door splintering around the lock. Maybe he wants to die in his own house. I take up the hammer, feel its weight in my hand, and imagine the peace the old man will feel once I’ve cracked open his skull and ended his misery. That will be a real Christmas gift.
Then, I’ll take down the lights.
(originally appeared in Nothing to Dread: a Niteblade Anthology edited by Rhonda Parrish)